Voters will head to the polls in 47 days, but off in the distance, the 2014 election is already beginning to work its way into the consciousnesses of political strategists. And the head of a prominent fiscal conservative group named Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) as a potential primary target in two years' time.
"Looking to the horizon of 2014, you know, the sun may rise over South Carolina," Club for Growth President Chris Chocola told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Thursday.
Chocola, a former Indiana congressman who heads the anti-tax group, added that an acceptable alternative to Graham would first need be identified before moving ahead with any involvement in a campaign against the senator.
But Graham is certainly on his radar.
"Lindsey Graham has not fared well on our scorecards. He's not always in line with our pro-growth agenda. But we'll see what the race is. We need to have something better to offer," Chocola added.
Graham's race is just one of many in 2014 that looks intriguing at this early stage (and yes, given that the 2012 election has not happened yet, it is very early). As The Fix's Aaron Blake wrote earlier today, the 2014 Senate map looks very favorable for Republicans.
The club, which is dedicated to electing fiscally conservative Republicans who align with its policy agenda, has been a major force across the Senate landscape this cycle. Through TV ads and bundled contributions, the group boosted Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) over longtime Sen. Richard Lugar (R) in May. Last cycle, the group set its sights on then-Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), who was beaten by now-Sen. Mike Lee (R).
Graham, who was first elected in 2002, has never been a favorite of conservatives. And his lifetime rating on the Club for Growth's scorecard is lower than Bennett's was when he lost his reelection bid in 2010.
"There is interest beyond our group in that race," Chocola added.
For conservatives, finding an acceptable alternative who can match the resources and name recognition of a second-term incumbent like Graham could be a challenge. So far, there is not a clear standard-bearer.
That's part of the difficulty of unseating incumbents — even those who have aroused anger in segments of the electorate — in primaries. In Utah this year, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) avoided repeating Bennett's fate, even in the face conservative ire. After Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) passed on a Hatch challenge, the anti-Hatch movement was left in the hands of little-known and underfunded former state senator Dan Liljenquist (R), who proved to be no match for the senator.
This cycle, the club's had a mixed record when it comes to Senate races. In addition to a major primary win in Indiana, it spent heavily on behalf of Ted Cruz (R), the former Texas solicitor general who upset Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) in a July runoff. But in Wisconsin and Nebraska, the group was less successful, backing candidates who failed to win the GOP nomination.
"We aren't really interested in a win-loss record," Chocola said Thursday. He noted that the group plays in races where it has identified acceptable candidates and believes it can make a difference.